Thursday, April 16, 2009

Independent Safety Experts Call For Shuttle Shutdown

Extending shuttle fleet operations beyond 2010 would endanger astronauts and sap money from efforts to launch human expeditions beyond Earth orbit, an independent safety oversight group said today.

"Continuing to fly the shuttle not only would increase the risk to crews, but also could jeopardize the future U.S. exploration program by squeezing available resources -- and, in the worst case, support -- for the Constellation program," the Aerospace safety Advisory Panel said in a newly released annual report.

Created by Congress to oversee NASA programs after the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire killed three astronauts, the panel acknowledged that keeping the shuttle fleet in operation would minimize a five-year gap between shuttle retirement and the first piloted flights of Ares 1 rockets and Orion spacecraft.

However, the group said, it "does not favor that approach."

The panel of aerospace safety experts said shuttle manufacturing and support capabilities "are dwindling and possibly not restorable."

NASA since 2004 has been closing out contracts with shuttle component manufacturers as well as vendors who support them.

"The contractor manufacturing base and third-tier suppliers are starting to shut down," the group said. "The capability to manufacture and integrate specific long-lead items -- e.g., the external tank -- will very soon be too degraded to restore efficiently, cost-effectively, and in a timely manner."

Key personnel positions are slated for elimination in the first half of the year, the panel said.

A decision to extend the shuttle would require a sweeping reevaluation of crew and mission safety issues.

"Relatively high levels of inherent risk reside in the shuttle design, and these risks rise as more flights are attempted," the panel said.

The group also noted that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended the entire shuttle system be recertified if NASA decided to keep the fleet in operation beyond 2010.

The money required to keep the $3-billion-a-year program in operation also would sap money from Project Constellation -- NASA's effort to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020, the group said.

Doing so would merely postpone or shift the gap in U.S. human spaceflight "while exposing NASA to the increased risk of shuttle flights and deferring the Constellation program," the group said.

On calls to accelerate the development of shuttle successor craft, the group said it "is not convinced" that Ares 1 rockets and Orion spacecraft can be fielded prior to March 2015 even if additional funding is provided by Congress.

"NASA is developing a new system for the first time in years, so it needs sufficient time to identify and resolve problems and reiterate the process," the group said.

The group also concluded that the private sector cannot bridge the gap. "There is no evidence" that commercial cargo and crew transport services will be developed in time to minimize the gap, the group said.

The spacecraft being developed by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are not subject to NASA human-rating standards "and are not proven to be appropriate to transport NASA personnel," the group said.

The capability of commercial spacecraft to safely dock with the International Space Station still must be demonstrated," the group said.

Check out the entire 2008 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report

ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge the Associated Press image of a NASA space shuttle orbiter rolling out on a runway after landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. You can also click the enlarged image to get an even bigger, more detailed view.

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